"Everybody Has a Railroad Gene"

Bob Ives (C'49) recently mused that in some ways his Penn education had a bigger impact on his retirement than it did on his life in the workaday world. The years at Penn exposed him to "mind-opening experiences" and allowed him to discover himself. An economics major, he enjoyed straying into elective courses like creative writing, where he always made high grades. Now he feels that the liberal arts were especially "valuable for fostering my creativity and making me receptive to more possibilities in life."

That creativity certainly helped him during his nearly twenty years in advertising. But when Ives decided to take an early retirement from the business that he had developed, he felt free to explore a very different but long-held interest. This was in woodworking and the making of custom furniture. Imagining that he could do it all from start to finish, he bought some land in upstate New York and proceeded to fell his own trees. When he proved a less than successful woodsman, he quickly learned to work with the local sawyers, buying wood from them and concentrating his attention on design and fabrication.

Among other items, Ives made a series of glass- topped backgammon tables, whose pieces could be left on display between games. Backgammon was all the rage in the '70s when Ives began his furniture making, and the individualized game tables sold well. There was the possibility of expanding the business and turning it into a small manufacturing operation. But Ives enjoyed the pleasures of careful craftsmanship. He didn't want to be a manufacturer. He wanted to build things that were even more individualized than his game tables.

At that point, it occurred to him that "most of the population has a railroad gene" and loves trains. Could he use model trains to create customized layouts under table tops? With some experimenting, he found that he could create "train tables" with detailed layouts and special effects - and sell as many as he could build. Dividing his time between a workshop in Milford, Connecticut and a studio in upstate New York, Ives now makes about 12 tables a year. They range in price from $1,600 to $8,500, depending on size, and the reservation list is usually full.

The trains operate under glass table tops, which can be lifted off if the operator needs to correct something in the layout (like a derailment). Controls are in a table drawer that can be pulled out. Perimeter lighting, on a circuit of its own, is arranged around the upper interior of the layout. Lighting for miniature buildings or street lamps has its own circuit, as do the automatic electronic devices triggered by the motion of the train, for example, to activate a highway crossing signal. Frequently, there are scenery actions as well, like carnival rides. Most layouts have sound effects, thanks to an audio tape mounted under the table or to a commercially available system that coordinates train sounds (suitable for the kind of engine) with the amount of current going into the track and the speed of the train. To "enlarge" a scene, Ives often puts mirrors around the edges of the layout. Looking diagonally across the table will then make one building appear to be four, increasing the apparent size and complexity of the scene.

Ives gets to know his customers pretty well by telephone and correspondence. In explaining what kind of layout they want, some are very specific and some are vague. He makes an effort to elicit information, though, because he wants the results to be satisfying. Customers are almost invariably adults buying for themselves. Ives's constructions are utilitarian coffee tables as well as conversation pieces and not very suitable as toys for young children. "A young child is probably better off with a standard model train." Then at a later stage, the older child might enjoy working with the intricate controls of an Ives piece.

Customers also come from a surprisingly wide range of backgrounds, and about half of them are women. Most of these buy tables for themselves. Last year, however, a woman ordered a table for her husband-to-be as a wedding present. (They were to be married on the 4th of July.) He was a fireman and very interested in the history of fire engines. Ives designed a 4th of July scene with an antique fire engine parade, two working trains, and a rolling digital sign that could display six different messages.

Another woman who bought a table for her husband was careful to put into the layout all his dearest interests (fishing, a speedboat, etc.) but Ives discovered that the woman herself flew a plane. So her layout is one of the few that contains a landing field and a miniature airplane (supported on an almost invisible wire) that can be tilted to suggest a landing or a takeoff.

More typical, however, is a woman who simply wanted a train of her own. Her two brothers had played with model trains as children. So had her sons who were now grown and gone. It was her turn, and "I want my railroad."

Ives sometimes recreates a scene from a customer's hometown. A man in California, for example, who grew up in Pennsylvania sent Ives a diagram of his childhood neighborhood. He was able to compact the remembered elements into a single, condensed railroad layout. Storefronts had the correct merchants' names, buildings the correct orientation, and so on. Sometimes Ives works with photographs as well as memories and diagrams. He has recreated Oneonta, New York in the 1940s, when it was an important railroad town. This layout was done for the CEO of a local electronics firm whose father, a Russian immigrant, had worked in the roundhouse and risen to be chief of the yard repair shop. Ives included a scene in which the customer as a boy was shown bringing his father his lunch in the repair shop.

Ives also occasionally does "time-warp stuff." For example, a woman customer in Michigan had played in the All American Girls' Professional Baseball League that toured during the 1940s and '50s. In part of the railroad layout, Ives put a youthful version of the woman and her teammates dressed in their baseball uniforms about to board their tour bus. In another section, he showed the women at a later stage in their lives being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

A man who had loved his father very much and had fond memories of him explained that his father had died when the customer was only 12. The railroad layout shows the adult customer and his wife having arrived in their red Jeep at the customer's boyhood house,replicated from photographs. The couple are walking up the steps toward a man coming out of the house with a boy on his shoulders. (The customer is shown about to meet his father and his own earlier self.)

Clearly, for many customers the element of nostalgia is strong. Not only do people bring Ives their memories to work from, the very idea of trains evokes an earlier America. Younger customers, of course, may want something more contemporary, less drawn from their own private experience. They may prefer a beautifully up-to-date diesel locomotive or a scene with recent innovations in travel. Ives is doing a layout, for example, that includes both a Chunnel train and the Oriental Express.

Asked if he had a model train as a child, Ives recalls that when he was three years old, his father bought him a Lionel layout as a Christmas gift. "Perhaps the grownups enjoyed it more than I did." Later when he was looking for something to "hang my creative hat on," trains offered the potential of wide variety to a miniature builder. He plans to continue his "retirement" business as long as his order list remains full. Occasionally customers enthusiastically suggest that Ives should expand his shop, hire people to work for him, and make many more layouts. But he feels that such a move would undermine the one-of-a-kind quality that makes his business unique. His market has limits, but he can thrive in it as long as he is "an exclusive." When he investigates similar advertised products, they turn out to be pretty crude. The businesses that make them also seem to disappear quickly, whereas Ives has been producing his train tables for 13 years.

It's nice to know that in a world of mass production and interchangeable parts, there is still a place for a fine craftsman. There's really just one hitch with an Ives train. Since it's under glass, you can't put those little smoke pellets in the engine (the kind that delighted you as a kid because they produced puffs of oily smoke and smelled up the house).

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